Ryan Seacrest on 17 Years of Hosting 'American Idol' and His Favorite Moment In Its History

ABC/Craig Sjodin
Ryan Seacrest

Ryan Seacrest is one of the busiest people in the entertainment industry. His workload includes hosting American Idol as well as the daily Live with Kelly and Ryan and the annual Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. He continues to host On Air with Ryan Seacrest on iHeartMedia's KIIS-FM as well as the weekly American Top 40 countdown show. He also runs his own production company. He is constantly flying back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, so it was unusual for him to have an extended stay in Hollywood over the last few days, which gave him the time to have a sit-down chat with Billboard in his dressing room trailer on the CBS Television City lot, Idol's home since 2002.

Seacrest talked about how long he thought Idol would last, keeping it fresh and how he really felt not hosting an episode for the first time in the series' history.

When you were hired to host season one of American Idol, how many seasons did you think it would last?

I remember two things: One was hearing about the success of the show in the U.K., so we thought maybe it would be a show that people might tune into. In no way did we think it would be as popular as it was. The second thing that made an impact was that friends of mine who couldn't care less what I do were watching the show and calling me to say, "This is really cool and fun and different and my friends are talking about it." So at the initial stage, you felt that there was impact. But I do remember Randy [Jackson] and I wondering in the first couple weeks of the first season, "Do you think we'll get a second season? When will we know? When will we get the pickup?" Because you're so used to one and out, we were anxiously awaiting the pickup for season two and then it began to snowball.

And now you're working on Season 17. How long do you think American Idol can run?

I remember when Simon Cowell was leaving, I wasn't quite sure what the future of the show would be, because he was so instrumental in the launch and the identity of the show. That's when I thought about, "How long will the show go on? Can it go on and what will its reincarnation be?" And then the franchise built and the strength of it built and you saw that you could put different judges in and the machine would work. And so I think it could have a life for a long time, 17 more seasons.

Here's a fun American Idol fact: for the first time in the show's history, we have a finalist who wasn't born yet when Kelly Clarkson won season one. Riley Thompson was born in October 2002, one month after the first season finale. Your thoughts?

I can't believe I'm that guy who is hosting a show where that can be possible. I remember feeling like a kid when I started hosting the show at age 27. Now the songs I think are so cool, the contestants tell me, "My dad loves that song too."

How do you keep hosting the show fresh and new?

It's easy. The judges are the same for many, many years, but the cast of contestants is always new and there are always different personalities, different characters, different anxieties, different nervousness, different energy and different vibrations. All of those different sensibilities create something new every year to play off of.

When you look back over the history of the show, do you have a favorite moment?

The greatest moment was probably the first finale because of the energy in the nation rooting for Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini and us not knowing what the show was really all about yet. There was still a naivety about it all for us and I remember how pure and how simple that was. "A Moment Like This" was the song and there was confetti and fireworks and we didn't yet know what impact the show was going to have in popular culture over the years. I think back to those early days. We always have fun, but we really pushed the limit of fun with Randy, Paula [Abdul] and Simon in the beginning and many times we were told to cool it down a little bit. But I enjoy each year standing on the end of the stage when the finalists are there and getting to say, "The winner of American Idol is…"

I remember the year you said, "The winner is David…" and we hit 10pm and everyone's DVR stopped recording. Those who weren't watching it live that night, like Keith Urban who had come home late from dinner, didn't know who had won, David Cook or David Archuleta.

If you were writing a movie about this series and that was to be a scene, I don't know if you could write that scene so perfectly. It was a live television moment. It was David and David. I remember the outrage, and I think some people thought there was a conspiracy there, that we planned to do that.

The question I get asked most about you is, "How does Ryan do it all?"

I should come up with an answer for that. I love each individual thing and I've always been busy. I've always had so many things to get done in the course of a day, and I try to be as efficient and as thoughtful as I can with everything I do. And now I only look at one day at a time. I used to look at the week and I would feel the anxiety in me building, and now I just take it day by day.

A couple of weeks ago, Bobby Bones filled in for you as host because you weren't feeling well. It was the first time in 17 years of Idol that you missed a show. What was that like for you?

I don't know if I felt worse the day that I couldn't make the taping or the night I had to watch the show not hosting the show. I would say the pain was bad both days, but it was really hard. Bobby did a great job and I appreciate him stepping in at the last minute, but it was really hard to know that I hosted 17 seasons of the show, and watch that episode back. But he was great. And then I realized, "Gosh, anybody can do this. It's not that tough to do." If I thought it was a big skill, maybe I'm fooling myself.

My take on it is that you make it look easy but it is not.

Dick Clark's advice to me was, "Try to make everyone who's in their living room on their couches think they can do your job, and if they say they can do it, then you're doing a good job of making it look easy."

On my first day writing a show for Dick, I wrote something that had him saying, "You out there," and Dick said, "No, I'm only speaking to one person."

That's funny. Rick Dees used to do that too, and that's when it stuck with me. You want to think of it as talking to an individual, not a mass of people.